A growth spurt in community college enrollment during the recession has all but ended, with numbers declining or leveling off this year, according to state officials.
Three years ago, two-year institutions saw an enrollment boon at the height of the recession. Community colleges were seen as a cost-effective alternative to pricier four-year schools, and also attracted adults seeking new skill sets in the changing job market.
But as the economy has improved, fewer people are enrolling in community colleges. Other factors include changes in federal student aid as well as a shrinking pool of high school graduates, said Andrew Nichols, director for research and policy analysis for the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
During the 2009-2010 academic year, the state's 16 community colleges saw an overall enrollment increase of 5 percent, based on head counts. But last year enrollment dropped 2.5 percent, the first such decline in more than a decade.
Several community colleges say they are still seeing lower enrollments. Many prefer using full-time equivalent counts — a measure that includes both full- and part-time students divided by a full-time course load.
By that measure, Anne Arundel Community College expects to see a 9 percent decrease this fall, according to President Dawn Lindsay. At the height of the recession three years ago, the community college saw an 11 percent increase in full-time equivalent students.
Kristen Cranford, a creative writing student entering her third year at AACC, said the decline is evident.
"The time it hits me that AACC enrollment is down is when I have classes canceled because of the lack of students," said Cranford, 22. "My freshman year I had a music class canceled three days before the beginning of semester, and this semester I had to cross my fingers a class I need for my degree would even run."
While she defends the community college as a great school with a caring, attentive staff, she said people in her circle have left the school because of transportation issues or scheduling conflicts. Some classes are only offered during the day, which can be difficult for students who work, like Cranford.
Melissa Beardmore, AACC vice president of learning resources management, said that while public transportation is available on the Arnold campus, countywide public transportation can be a problem. She also said course offerings are tied to enrollment.
"It's a goal of ours and it's a mission mandate to be fiscal stewards of taxpayer money and student tuition and fees," she said. "That may require canceling classes at times for low enrollment. On the flip side, we also add classes if there is student demand."
Lindsay attributes AACC's dip in enrollment to such factors as the improving economy. "When the economy goes south, people come back to school," she said.
She said another factor may be health care reform. Some students enrolled to be able to continue under their parent's health care plans, but under the Affordable Health Care Act, children can stay on those plans much longer.
At Baltimore City Community College, last year's enrollment dropped 22.7 percent from the previous year. Officials say that was due to several factors, including the school being placed on probation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education because of inadequate standards to measure student performance.
Carolyn Hull Anderson, named interim BCCC president this year, said enrollment is expected to hold steady this year.
"We are hopeful that the college has turned the corner after addressing multiple challenges that contributed to last year's enrollment decline," Anderson said.
One of the school's locations in the downtown harbor area is closed, surrounded by fence. At the main campus, on Liberty Heights Avenue, a handful of students registered for classes or shopped in the bookstore Friday afternoon.
Keon Jeter and Dayquan Nichols, both 18, sat outside the building, waiting for their shared ride. This will be their first year in college. Best friends since their 10th grade year at The Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, they finish each other's sentences and both plan to study fashion design.
"I'm prepared, I'm ready to do it," Jeter said, as Nichols nodded beside him.
Some local community colleges have been to largely maintain larger student bodies after years of enrollment growth.
Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, said from 2007-11 enrollment soared. School officials said they expect a 2 percent change — either up or down — this year. MHEC figures last year said the college was down 4.1 percent from the previous year.
Howard Community College is projecting a slight enrollment increase for the new school year.
"This is not like those really robust numbers we had during the recession," said HCC President Kate Hetherington, "but one of the good things is that those people who came during the recession and got skills are now, with an improving — though slow — economy [are] going back to work."
Hetherington said HCC's enrollment has either increased or been level. She said that's attributed to many factors, one of which was the opening on the school's Health Sciences Building, which she said creates more pathways to jobs.
Harford Community College officials said the school expects enrollment figures to be within 1 percent of last fall. Carroll Community College President Dr. Faye Pappalardo said enrollment numbers for the fall "are still too preliminary to share."
Declining high school pool
The leveling off in community college enrollment is trending nationally, according to Nichols from the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
The economy is improving — lessening the demand for working adults to return to school for additional skills — and changes in federal Pell Grant eligibility are having an effect, he said. Those changes reduce students' eligibility to receive the grant from 18 full-time semesters to 12 full-time semesters, beginning last fall.
MHEC is working to address the fact that fewer high school graduates, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds, will be prepared academically for college or able to afford it, Nichols said. The state also is worried about a declining population of high school graduates over the next decade, he said.
"We're seeing a lot of students coming into higher education that, unlike past years, will have less money and will be less able to afford higher education," Nichols said. "And a lot of them are going to be less prepared for college."
Nichols said community colleges are feeling the brunt of a smaller high school graduate pool because they're a "primary access point" to higher education for many students from lower-income backgrounds.
Enrollment declines also impact community college budgets. At Anne Arundel Community College, tuition and fees make up 40 percent of the school's operating budget — so the 9 percent decline means Anne Arundel expects to have $4 million less than anticipated.
Lindsay said the college will make up for the loss by leaving vacant positions open or trimming adjunct faculty, and vowed that no programs would be cut as a result of the decrease.
"Any kind of adjustments we will make," Lindsay said, "are as far from the classroom as possible."
This story has been updated to correct inaccurate information about the federal Pell Grant program and to clarify Nichols' comments about lower-income students. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.
Community College Enrollments
Percentage change from 2011 to 2012, based on head counts
Anne Arundel Community College-4.4%-.6%-1.7%
Baltimore City Community College-41.8%-7.8%-22.7%
Carroll Community College-2.0%4.0%1.5%
Community College of Baltimore County-6.7%-2.8%-4.1%
Harford Community College-3.0%4.3%1.3%
Howard Community College-.2%1.2%.7%
All Maryland Community Colleges -5.9%-.7%-2.5%
Source: Maryland Higher Education CommissionCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun